Liberal Arts pedagogy can positively contribute to the transgender debate

I recently submitted this research paper to my university. Feedback from my assessor are in italics and brackets:

Assess how the Socratic method and interdisciplinary learning can contribute to the development of understanding the human person in the context of the current transgender debate

The transgender debate has been increasingly mainstream, and will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future.[1] This debate has been, and will continue to be, controversial for a number of reasons, and it is first and foremost controversial because of the different perspectives on the human person relevant to this debate. Two examples of the perspectives in question include the Catholic perspective and gender theory.

Such different perspectives are tied to different definitions of the relevant terminology, and this requires clarification. In contemporary discourse, sex is conceptually differentiated from gender, where sex refers to male or female biological characteristics of the human person, and gender refers to the perception of male or female identity in the social context.[2] As such, transgender is understood to pertain to an internal gender identity incongruent with the human person’s assigned sex at birth. Therefore, this gender theory views the human person as a dual identity, where body and soul are not integrated.

(Why internal? Please clarify. The theory Gender Identity was first proposed by Robert Stoller within the context of psychanalysis. Building on the studies that followed Stoller’s seminal work, Thomas Bevan published in 2016 an interdisciplinary study titled The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism. Would this dual identity be similar to what in anthropological studies is referred to as being constitutive of the ‘dividual’ (as conceptualised in the work of Marilyn Strathern and of Mark Mosko)?

However, the Catholic understanding is that gender is the socio-cultural role of sex, meaning that sex and gender are distinguishable from each other, but are not disconnected.[3] Furthermore, the Congregation for Catholic Education’s Male and Female He Created Them conceptually defined transgenderism as dependent on a mindset that is subjective, making gender a choice independent of sex, and the perception thereof.[4] This understanding is based on the Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of the body-soul composite, and is the opposite of gender theory, hence the controversy.

The Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of the human person is such as illustrated thus far, based on Genesis 1:27–28, which teaches that the human person is created in God’s image and likeness, which gives rise to, first and foremost, inherent human dignity. That is, the human person possesses certain inalienable rights from conception to death. Therefore, the human person is not to be degraded and reduced to being a means to ends that are antithetical to his or her personal development.[5] But in spite of differences in views on the matter, the Socratic method and interdisciplinary learning can nevertheless contribute to the development of understanding the human person in this context.

The Socratic method deploys ‘dialogue’, where dialogue strives for cognitive growth to help one build respect for human dignity. In order to achieve this, silence is to be interwoven with speech, which would help balance power dynamics in dialogue.[6] As such, it would be more productive to build a better understanding of human dignity through dialogue rather than debate, especially if gender theory and the Aristotelian-Thomistic position on the human person is seemingly irreconcilable.

The end goal of a debate is that one side wins and the other side loses. In the current transgender debate, surrounding transgender people who experience gender dysphoria, debate will not necessarily contribute to the development of better understanding the human person. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines gender dysphoria as a marked incongruence between the human person’s experienced and expressed gender, and their sex assigned at birth, involving clinically significant distress or impairment in functioning in life.[7]

Given that the transgender debate is more complex than just gender theory, that is, there is a medical condition involved, collaboration between both sides of the debate is required, which starts with a conversation. A conversation strives to reach equilibrium between both sides, and the next step is dialogue, which strives to reach disequilibrium, with appropriate moments of silence (active listening), in order to renew understanding, which may restore equilibrium.[8] If dialogue is implemented in this manner, a disequilibrium would be reached on how to uphold the dignity of the human person experiencing a gender dysphoria which gives rise to a transgender identity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the subjective responsibility for an action can be diminished by psychological factors,[9] and it is in this light that the Socratic method could assist both sides in restoring equilibrium to the dialogue. Gender dysphoria as per DSM-5, in the context of CCC 1735, could be considered the restorative equilibrium to both the Aristotelian-Thomistic position and gender theory as per the Socratic method.

Interdisciplinary learning integrates multiple independent disciplines, such as philosophy/theology and psychology, thereby ensuring that the human person can critically think from different perspectives, other than, for example, strictly gender theory or strictly Aristotelian-Thomism, in order to reach the truth. As such, it also ensures that the human person has the tools to fine-tune their ethical decision-making, in upholding human dignity.[10] One of these tools is the Socratic method demonstrated thus far in this paper.

Therefore, no matter how correct Christian anthropology and Aristotelian-Thomism may seem, this and its teachings do not necessarily have an appropriate space in transgender healthcare, yet. This may explain why Male and Female He Created Them focuses on gender theory, but offers insufficient direct guidance on gender dysphoria treatment.[11] It seems that Catholic liberal arts has a long way to go in the interdisciplinarity space for contributing to the development of understanding the human person in the context of the current transgender debate.

(Dana, a very interesting paper demonstrating how methods of Catholic Liberal Arts education could be deployed to engage in a restorative dialogue away from antagonistic debate. There were a couple of points which I believe would have required clarification for the benefit of the reader — please see my notes in margin to your paper. Besides this minor issue, what I found very interesting and deserving further comment was the point you raised towards the end of your paper when you claim that gender dysphoria could be considered the restorative equilibrium to the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of the human person and gender theory. The paper is well-written and well-structured which facilitates an easy reading. Overall, good.)

Bibliography

American Psychiatric Association. “What Is Gender Dysphoria?” Accessed October 03, 2021. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria.

Australian Institute of Family Studies. “LGBTIQA+ communities glossary of common terms: CFCA Resource Sheet — November 2019.” Accessed October 03, 2021. https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/lgbtiq-communities.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997.

Chesters, Sarah Davey. The Socratic Classroom: Reflective Thinking through Collaborative Inquiry. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Congregation for Catholic Education (for Educational Institutions). Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education. Document. Vatican website. June 10, 2019. http://www.educatio.va/content/dam/cec/Documenti/19_0997_INGLESE.pdf.

Francis. Amoris Laetitia. Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Vatican website. March 19, 2016. https://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf.

Nowacek, Rebecca S. “Why Is Being Interdisciplinary so Very Hard to Do? Thoughts on the Perils and Promise of Interdisciplinary Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 60, no. 3 (2009): 493–516.

Reardon, Sara. “The largest study involving transgender people is providing long-sought insights about their health.” nature.com, April 24, 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01237-z.

Schlag, Martin. Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching: A Guide for Christians in the World Today. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017.

Footnotes

[1] Sara Reardon, “The largest study involving transgender people is providing long-sought insights about their health,” nature.com, April 24, 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01237-z.

[2] LGBTIQA+ communities glossary of common terms: CFCA Resource Sheet — November 2019,” Australian Institute of Family Studies, accessed October 03, 2021, https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/lgbtiq-communities.

[3] Francis, Amoris Laetitia, post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Vatican website, March 19, 2016, https://www.vatican.va/content/dam/francesco/pdf/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia_en.pdf.

[4] Congregation for Catholic Education, Male and Female He Created Them: Towards a Path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender Theory in Education, document, Vatican website, June 10, 2019, http://www.educatio.va/content/dam/cec/Documenti/19_0997_INGLESE.pdf.

[5] Martin Schlag, Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching: A Guide for Christians in the World Today

(Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 21.

[6] Sarah Davey Chesters, The Socratic Classroom: Reflective Thinking through Collaborative Inquiry (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 29.

[7] “What Is Gender Dysphoria?” American Psychiatric Association, accessed October 03, 2021, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/gender-dysphoria/what-is-gender-dysphoria.

[8] Chesters, The Socratic Classroom, 13.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 1735.

[10] Rebecca S Nowacek, “Why Is Being Interdisciplinary so Very Hard to Do? Thoughts on the Perils and Promise of Interdisciplinary Pedagogy,” College Composition and Communication 60, no. 3 (2009): 495.

[11] Congregation for Catholic Education, Male and Female He Created Them.

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TransCatholic ⚧️✝️ | Liberal Arts student @notredameaus | Thomistic Personalist | social media content curator | all opinions expressed here are my own

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Dana Pham

Dana Pham

TransCatholic ⚧️✝️ | Liberal Arts student @notredameaus | Thomistic Personalist | social media content curator | all opinions expressed here are my own

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